Ladies in Black, Ladies in White, some Gentlemen too. John Singer Sargent à la mode at Tate Britain

John Singer Sargent, self-portrait, 1906

Ladies is an old-fashioned word in 2024, we say women, or even other less gender-specific terms, but, in the 1880s and 1890s, in Europe and the US, it was lady if you were a lady, and woman if you were female, but not a lady in the class-conscious world that the painter, and famous American, but European-based portrait artist, John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) inhabited. I suppose in those days he would have been Mr John Singer Sargent, and, if he had married, which he didn’t, his wife would have been known as Mrs John Singer Sargent. He was even, if he didn’t say so in public, what we call today, queer. I was thinking about this yesterday, when I went to see the spectacular and extremely well documented exhibition, Sargent and Fashion, at London’s Tate Britain art gallery (until 7th July). The show has a large collection of his portraits of the fashionable elite of Paris and London at the end of the 19th century. Here the portraits of married women, er, I mean ladies, were named for their husbands. The Tate helpfully gave us these women’s maiden names in brackets and in the catalogue notes, reminded us, or surprised us by how cultured, intelligent, creative and progressive a lot of these, er, ladies were. It was also interesting and a little surprising too that many of them were or became friends of the artist.

He had a number of female friends, many of them were what was known as progressive in those days, when it would have been considered unladylike. The times though were a’changing, not least in gender politics. I say this here because I want to share some of Sargent’s fabulous fashion portraits and to refute the common accusation that Sargent was nothing more than a brilliant technician with a superficial attitude to art and society. This exhibition is about art and fashion, so it’s about art, and therefore some art critics assume the show must be superficial, a kind of arty Eurovision.

The ladies in this portraits are mostly dressed in the high end of haut couture in the formative years of the very idea of fashion houses and fashion shows, and they appear to be loving their clothes – in these pictures, I think, we should love them too, as well as the superb demonstration of Sargent’ s virtuosity with a paintbrush. Here clothes, dresses and the materials they are made from, are truly beautiful, but we are not just seeing lovely dresses, these pictures are character studies, and these women, it is obvious, interest the artist as individuals as much as they should interest us.

The women and men, I mean, ladies and gentlemen, in these portraits are exposed, in the best sense of that word, as real people and most of them appear to be comfortable to avoid, as did Sargent himself, gender stereotyping. When some of them were first unveiled, the pictures caused more than just a ripple of outrage, some of the sitters suffered not just sniggers, but ostracisation for, what was seen as their revelling in their questionable propriety. Many more though clamoured to be Sargent’s next portrait.

Sargent was a great colourist, and I apologise if I am ignoring many of the magnificently colourful paintings in this exhibition, but my first and long lingering final impression of this exhibition is that Sargent was the master of black and white. Ladies, er, women, by the end of the 19th century, were allowed to wear black without being in mourning, and to wear white even if they were no longer virgins. There is already a kind of freedom there. Sargent helps them in this and allows them to be, not ladies, but human persons, each with their unique characters – and very much not just black and white.

I have cheated a bit and, because I couldn’t help it, I let his wonderfully vivid reds into the show and, I have also included the portrait of the scruffy bohemian writer Édouard Pailleron, wearing black, I know, but with his shirt hanging out and trying, veryr hard, not to look elegant. I have also allowed you to see the very masculine-looking Henry Lee Higginson wearing brown, albeit with his black cloak, robe-like, spread out in glory over nearly half of his body. He was an American Civil War veteran, successful banker, and founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but I was wondering if I should call him Mr Olympe Frederika Agassiz, after his wife. I put them in because just I love them, but this is blog primarily about black and white.

Sargent wanted to mix up the genders, so I’ll close with his wonderfully informal, Group with Parasols, where men and women lie in a happy jumble on the grass. It was painted towards the end of his career, after he had stopped painting society portraits. Sadly, the delightful innocence of this picture reminds me of the work as a war artist that he began in 1914. John Singer Sargent wasn’t superficial, after-all. He was a serious observer of humanity in all its shades of grey.

Madame Pierre Gautreau (Virginie Amélie-Avegno) or Portrait of Madam X, 1883 -84
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (Gertrude Vernon) 1892
Lady Sassoon (Aline de Rothschild), 1907
Miss Elsie Palmer, or A Lady in White, 1889-90
Mrs Adrian Iselin (Eleanora O’Donnell), 1888
Mrs Joshua Montgomery Sears (Sarah Choate Sears), 1899
Jane Evans, 1898
Madame Ramón Subercaseaux (Amalia Errázuriz) 1880-81
Mrs Edward L. Davis (Maria Robbins) and her son Livingston Davis, 1890
Mrs Robert Harrison (Helen Smith) 1886
Ena Wertheimer: a Vele Gonfie (with full sails), 1905
Vernon Lee, 1881
Mrs Charles Inches (Louise Pomeroy), 1887
Mrs Charles Thursby (Alice Brisbane), 1898
Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon (Helen Duncombe), 1904
W. Graham Robertson, 1894
Albert de Belleroche, c. 1883
Dr Pozzi at home, 1881
Henry Lee Higginson, 1903
Édouard Pailleron, 1879
Group with Parasols (Siesta) 1904-5
Two soldiers at Arras, 1918 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Gassed, 1919 (Imperial War Museum, London)

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